Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

September 1, 2013

On Liking To Read Comics That May Be Just Awful

Enough people e-mailed me links to this article and the resulting comics thread late last week that for a second I thought some major figure in the comics landscape had died. It is as difficult for me to read contentious message board-type threads bubbling up from comics culture as I'm sure it's hard for some folks to revisit a bar where they did a lot of personal damage drinking to excess. I wasted a lot of my life in places like that. They're rarer to see now, temporary structures rather than hardy castles, but the air still tastes the same. So many folks seem so deeply unhappy, and the issues themselves seem less important than employing a strategy that will win the day according to some made-up standard for doing so.

I don't know the work of the cartoonist in question, certainly not well enough to lower the boom with a racism charge. I would want to read a lot of the work before I did that; it seems only fair. Not all that convinced it would mean a bunch even if I did. I no longer share the vigorous faith in labeling something that some folks on that thread and in other places more generally seem to evince. The conversation raises some interesting side issues. It seems a bit weird to me that you dismiss the transgressive nature of something at the same time you're trying to shout it down in some fashion, but that's way too easy of a response that I'm certain it's flawed in some way that could be easily summarized and tossed back at me. I have a bunch of different opinions about using upsetting material as art. I don't like it when it's used cynically, as a way to tweak genre or to facilitate sales; I find that dehumanizing and sad. I tend not to judge what an artist wants to do, what they feel they have to push back against, because my experience isn't theirs. I'm happy to comment on their art without making a sweeping judgment about them, mostly because I'm more interested in the art.

That's where it gets a bit weird, and not to my credit. I may have a slight hitch in my moral make-up in that I tend to be able to process art that has horrible aspects to it in the same way I take it Frank Santoro was in his initial post. For instance, I enjoy the exuberant silliness of the "Woman Wonder" parody that Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder did once upon a time, although there are some super-sick aspects to that comic and I think it exists in a space between knowing that it's sick and giving its readers a charge from that sickness. I like the wild nature of Fred Carter's work in those anti-Catholic Crusaders comics even though I can't stomach their hate-filled, rattle-eyed certainty. I tend to see potentially damaging aspects to a lot of comics, from Archie to Superman to Cerebus to Eightball to 9 Chickweed Lane, and at the same time not hold those things in my heart against their creators. There are a million ways to move through the world, and I've barely figured out my own. Andy Capp makes me laugh. Andy Capp is a monster.

The most sensible thing I read in that entire, sprawling outburst was Frank Santoro's apology here, and that's even without knowing exactly what he was apologizing for: the rhetoric or the endorsement. I like the confession that sometimes we read things one way and wish we hadn't, or wish we had read them another, or wish we had said so in a completely different way. Engaging with art on any level is a jittery business, and we all fall down a bunch. I assume someone out there took Santoro's post as a "win," whatever that means. That's a way of looking at it, too.
posted 5:45 pm PST | Permalink

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